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Rutte-III coalition agreement: never has there been so little democratic renewal

The Rutte-III coalition agreement has been presented and the commentary is flooding in. Public administration experts Arco Timmermans and Gerard Breeman examined the new agreement – as they have done for every coalition agreement since 1963 - and made a systematic analysis of it: it is very much about the labour market, with less democratic renewal than ever before.

Arco Timmermans is professor by special appointment of Public Affairs and Gerard Breeman is assistant professor of Public Administration, both at Leiden University. Together they head Dutch research into the political agenda, which forms part of the International Comparative Agendas Project. They have a large database that includes analyses of every coalition agreement since 1963 - and every speech from the throne, all parliamentary questions and bills. ‘We actually analyse the political attention paid to particular issues,’ explains Breeman. In line with an international standard, all intentions in a coalition agreement are grouped around one of twenty major themes and more than 250 sub-themes. ‘This way we can see which topics are gaining or losing attention between cabinets and between countries, compared over time.’

Timmermans and Breeman find the list of topics that have ‘gained’ or ‘lost’ in the Rutte-III coalition agreement remarkable. ‘The main theme is clearly labour and employment, covering almost 15% of the intentions in the agreement,’ says Timmermans. That's almost double compared to Rutte-II, the researchers say. Breeman notes that, since 1963, never has so little been put forward regarding governance and democratic renewal. ‘That's remarkable, especially with D66 in the cabinet.’

Another issue that has drawn the short straw in Rutte-III is social affairs and welfare. ‘This is currently at a historically low level, of only 2.7%,’ says Breeman. A trend reversal, he believes. ‘We carry out these analyses for each cabinet year. If you look at the top five themes every year, social affairs and welfare have always been represented in the last ten years. But, in this agreement, they get only negligible attention.’ There is also little attention devoted to macroeconomics. Timmermans: ‘From this, we can deduce that the economic crisis is now truly over.’ 

However, there are other crises that have impacted the coalition agreement. About 4% of the intentions of the new cabinet concern agriculture and food. That may seem a low percentage but it’s never been so high before. This topic also covers food safety. Breeman: ‘The increase in political attention is easy to trace to the various food scandals of recent years, including the horse meat and fipronil eggs scandals.’

The public administrators are also examining the coalition agreement more generally. It was not only the longest formation period, but also the longest agreement since 1963. ‘Fewer pages, but with a lot finer print, so that the total word count exceeds 40,000,’ Timmermans emphasises. Breeman also finds the title noteworthy. ‘The motto is “Confidence in the future”. But it is a very detailed agreement, in which almost everything is battened down, in which case, there's actually no reason for trust, because everything's already fixed.’ Timmermans: ‘Perhaps it's a response to the approach to the previous coalition agreement. That was a swiftly agreed, horse-trader agreement, which almost floundered immediately after the cabinet started.’ According to Timmermans, it is now a typical compromise agreement. ‘It will be quite a challenge for the four parties to maintain a balance between them. I expect that the fear of fresh elections will play a role in keeping the club together. That was also the case in the previous cabinet.’

All the figures in this article are designed by Gerard Breeman and Arco Timmermans, Leiden University.